Sunday, 7 May 2017

Herbs And Spices

19:42:00 Posted by Jill Reidy Red Snapper Photography , , , , 2 comments
Despite - or more likely, because of - a lack of money in their early years of marriage, my mum was always a marvellous, inventive cook - we lived off the recipes in the free Fray Bentos cookbook for years, where corned beef was revealed each meal in a different guise.  As far as I remember no herbs or spices were involved. That would have been a step too far for good old Fray Bentos, whose red and cream flecked block of meat, complete with the odd tube, epitomised post war Britain.

The only herbs that saw the light of day in our house were the sage in the packet of dry sage and onion stuffing - just add boiling water and shove into the cavities of a floppy pink chicken - and the mint In the jar of bright green mint sauce that accompanied our lamb on a Sunday.  Occasionally, a few mint leaves would be plucked from the only herb that survived in our garden, and thrown into a pan of boiling new potatoes. The smell was of late spring with a hint of the summer to come. Pans boiling, lids clattering, kitchen windows steamed up and streaming, this was Sunday in the Carrington household.  When cooked, add a generous amount of butter to the pan and savour the aroma of buttery, minty potatoes.

In those days salt came in large packets, pepper was a grey dust and mustard a powder to be mixed with milk or water - and bring you to excruciating tears if you happened to put too much on your meat.  Herbs and spices were for the Asians, the Chinese and the Jamaicans who were beginning to filter into our towns and cities.

In 1976 the husband and I, newly married, moved to Leeds for a year so he could do his PGCE. The city was a multicultural novelty to me, with its tiny corner shops crammed with their displays of unusual fruit and vegetables. The smell of herbs and spices wafting from the doorway as I walked past on my way to work, led me to peer in, nosily, but I had no idea what I'd buy or, more importantly, how on earth I'd use it, so the shops remained an exotic mystery to me.  Women would emerge, in their brightly coloured saris, chattering in an unknown tongue, baskets overflowing with pungent smelling packages, misshapen fruits and dark, drooping leaves.  This was a world of which I knew nothing, but as a keen cook, I was anxious to discover the secrets of those dingy shops.

The opportunity arose when I saw an advert in a shop window for an Indian cookery evening class. I turned up on the first night in an old school Domestic Science (remember that?) room.  We were a motley crew, both sexes, all ages, all white British, keen to learn.  The teacher was a strikingly beautiful young Indian woman, dressed in a sari. Her long tapered fingers, expressive hands and soft voice were mesmerising.  We all watched as she calmly talked us through our first dish, adding handfuls of flour and other dry ingredients, abundant pinches of aromatic spices and bowls of chopped and grated vegetables. She gave us their Indian and English names, and waited while we wrote them down in pristine notebooks.

This was a new experience for most of us. Nothing was weighed or measured, the bowls, handfuls and pinches of ingredients were the products of years of Indian cuisine (although that was probably far too grand a word back then) passed down from generation to generation until it became second nature. Now, we inexperienced British were to learn this method, which meant using our senses in place of the scales. She showed us how to look and smell and feel if a dish was right, dipping our fingers into bowls and sniffing at the spices. She even taught us to listen for the correct sizzle as something small and tasty was dropped into hot, bubbling ghee.

There  was such an art to this lovely lady's cooking, I felt I could have sat all night just watching as she mixed and stirred and threw ingredients into pans, all the while talking softly and repeating the Indian names  I remember walking home that first night with a still warm pan, puffs of aromatic steam escaping into the cold night air, excited to taste this exotic dish when I got it back to our basement flat.

I had my list for the following week and on my way home from work the next day, instead of walking past the Indian shop with a quick glance, I ventured in. It was the smell that hit me first, sweet, spicy, pungent, rich with promise. No tiny jars or packets here, but huge bags and sacks of cumin, turmeric, garam masala, cardamom seeds bursting out of their woody pods, fresh chillies of every size, shape and colour, huge onions and tomatoes.  My goods were expertly wrapped in twists of paper and small bags, aromas escaping as I placed them in my basket.  It will come as no surprise to anyone who knows me that I still have some of those spices in my cupboard to this day. The cardamom pods smell as sweet and musky as the day they left the shop.

At the end of term we planned a banquet, each of us cooking a different dish.  Partners were invited, and we sat in the domestic science room with tables pushed together and a makeshift cloth, while the table groaned with every Indian dish imaginable. Sadly, mobiles and cameras were not a necessity and no record remains on that night. My one abiding memory is of someone's wife innocently biting into an unbearably hot chilli. The look in her face as she struggled to cool herself down will stay with me forever.

Over the years I've worked my way through many an Indian cookery book, as well as referring to those original recipes in my little blue notebook.  Maybe it's time I finally released the few remaining cardamom seeds from their pods and made us all a banquet to celebrate the night I was first introduced to Indian cuisine over forty years ago.

Those forty year old Cardamom pods

Just to redress the balance with herbs as well as spices.....

Scarborough Fair - one of my favourite Simon and Garfunkel songs
Are you going to Scarborough Fair
Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme
Remember me to one who lives there
She once was a true love of mine
Tell her to make me a cambric shirt (deep forest green)
Parsley sage rosemary and thyme
Without no seams nor needle work (blankets and bedclothes the child of the mountain)
Then she'll be a true love of mine (sleeps unaware of the clarion call)
Tell her to find me an acre of land (a sprinkling of leaves)
Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme (washes the grave with silvery tears)
Between the salt water and the sea strand (A soldier cleans and polishes a gun)
She'll be a true love of mine
Tell her to reap it with a sickle of leather (War bellows blazing in scarlet battalions)
Parsley sage rosemary and thyme (General order their soldiers to kill)
And gather it all in a bunch of heather (And to fight for a cause they've long ago forgotten)
Then she'll be a true love of mine
Are you going to Scarborough Fair
Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme
Remember me to one who lives there
She once was a true love of mine

Written by Arthur Garfunkel, Paul Simon

Thanks for reading, Jill xx 


Twigger said...

Another good post Jill. Great descriptive writing - I love it. I can see and smell the food - both the corned beef (which I still love) and the spicy dishes. :)

Adele said...

I have been watching Master chef and the young Asian contestant is so at home with her collection of spices. So lovely. My Mum only used mint, parsley and sage - Dad made the curries - 5 years in India made him rather more adventurous in the kitchen than she was.

Great post Jill